New York

Alex Israel, Solo, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 6 seconds. Photo: Joerg Lohse. Reena Spaulings Fine Art.

Alex Israel, Solo, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 6 seconds. Photo: Joerg Lohse. Reena Spaulings Fine Art.

Alex Israel

Some encounters with art merit an autopsy report more than a review. I confess that, in those cases, I have a hard time parsing whether it is the work that is DOA, or my interest in what it’s doing, or both. Attending two shows by Alex Israel—the born-and-bred Los Angeleno who has made his reputation among collectors as one of that city’s brightest sons—I wondered if he is now feeling as stiffed as I do by the selfie-conscious, celebrity-grazing spectacles he’s been producing for half a dozen years or so. Having cast himself as a kind of Narcissus for our shallow, oversharing, materialistic times, he—along with the cultural artifacts that have shaped him—is still at the center of his practice. Thin and blingy by design, Israel’s always presumptuous work once had at least a little spunk; now, in a context far less comfy than the Obama years, during which he got his start, his one-liners appear to be flatlining.

At Reena Spaulings Fine Art, an outfit semi-sprung from like-minded conversations regarding selfhood and branding, Israel presented Solo, 2019, a holographic video of himself coolly blowing a smooth-jazzy tune on a tenor saxophone. For some IRL mise-en-scène, he placed a stool and a bottle of water in the gallery behind his projected image; in the corner opposite, a push broom leaned against the wall. The facts meant to kink this otherwise straightforward installation: that Israel, when a middle-schooler, was inspired to take up the instrument after seeing both Bill Clinton and Lisa Simpson play (you’d learn this only from the press release); that this is the same medium via which Tupac Shakur was reanimated for a posthumous concert; and that the song Israel performs was cowritten by the Grammy-nominated saxophonist Mindi Abair. The Pepper’s ghost illusion he uses to materialize his alt-self is never not a neat trick—both Richard Maxwell and Tony Oursler have used it in recent years to smartly theatricalize memory’s playing spaces. But Israel’s apparition offered little more than a middling musical performance; its lax presence felt less like a visitation and more just phoned in.

Visitors entered “As It Lays 2” at Greene Naftali by stepping through Selfie-Portal, 2019, an entryway cut in the shape of the artist’s head in profile—the silhouette that’s become his logo. The shape was echoed in the frames for his self portraits, photo-realistic depictions of the Pacific Coast Highway, an Instagram post of two women all dressed up for Coachella, and other stuff of the world that muses his mind. The cleverest of these works, Self-Portrait (Rear-View Mirror), 2018, captures two images of Israel: as a reflection and as an object (an air freshener?) that dangles from his car mirror. Also on view were Idol and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, both 2019, for which Israel refabbed props from two of his favorite movies: the golden statue Indiana Jones was after in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the golden tickets from the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s gruesome classic—metaphors for the prizes that drive us, of course. The exhibition took its title from Israel’s ongoing mock talk show, for which he has interviewed dozens of celebrities, including Cindy Crawford, Heidi Fleiss, Billy Idol, Kris Jenner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Wolfgang Puck, and Molly Ringwald. (The set and videos from As It Lays 2, 2019, were also on view.) Aping a Warholian flatness, Israel tosses inanities at his guests, and they play along: “How do you take your eggs?” (LL Cool J: “Intravenously.”); “Do all dogs go to heaven?” (Elizabeth Berkley: “Yes, yes.”). The big reveal, such as it is: The rich and famous know they’re rich and famous, and they want you to know that they know they’re rich and famous enough to send their status up—at least a little. (A loosed question: Are the celebrities paid as performers, or does Israel bank on their participation by selling it to them as a press appearance or as a contribution to Art?)

Flattering wealth and power has been a practical matter of artistic survival for centuries, and a generous take on Israel’s oeuvre might posit him as a contemporary courtier who’s convinced his highnesses that it’s his image that should adorn their walls. Warhol and Koons are often invoked as his progenitors; this predictable anointing bores me to . . . you know. I’ll spare you my equally predictable response to how good-old-white-boy privilege lauds the underachievers, the status quo, locking us into stale conversations instead of risking assured success in the search for something, anything, that hasn’t been done already, and instead leave you with a neo-Pop quiz:

Art is art when . . .
a. an artist says it is.
b. a viewer says it is.
c. a collector says it is.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.
I’ll let you grade yourselves.